2016 Ambassador Award Winner
Naomi Oreskes was awarded the 2016 Ambassador Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 14 December 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. The award is in recognition for “outstanding contributions to one or more of the following area(s): societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool.”
Naomi Oreskes is truly an ambassador for our community. Her unique expertise, spanning the disciplines of history and geoscience, has allowed her to fulfill a particularly valuable niche in the academic and societal discourse over human-caused climate change.
As a scientist, Naomi has authored or coauthored several fundamentally important articles that have significant implications both for our understanding of the science of climate change and for our appreciation of the larger societal issues involved, including the challenge of communicating science in a hostile environment and the role of scientists as advocates for an informed public discourse. In 2012, Naomi co-authored a study providing a retrospective evaluation of climate science and introducing into the lexicon the phrase “erring on the side of least drama” in describing how and why scientists in our field have tended to err on the side of -conservatism/-reticence when it comes to predictions and projections of climate change and its impacts. Naomi’s groundbreaking 2004 study in Science, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” is one of the most cited studies in our field (more than 1000 citations), which exposed the fallacy that there is still debate within the scientific community as to whether or not climate change is real and substantially due to human activity. It is this article, and the attacks she was subjected to by those looking to discredit this finding, that led Naomi into the center of the public sphere. We are all better off for that development.
Naomi went on to coauthor, in 2010, Merchants of Doubt, which explores the historical context for -modern-day climate change denial, demonstrating how it grew out of previous disinformation campaigns like that behind tobacco industry efforts to deny the negative health impacts of its product. The book has sold over 50,000 copies, has been translated into six languages, has won several prizes, and was made into an award-winning documentary film that came out in 2014.
Naomi has provided testimony for numerous governmental and scientific panel assessments, has written dozens of commentaries and -op-eds in leading newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times. She is a leading force for furthering an appreciation of the historical development of geophysical knowledge, for communicating our science and its implications to the public, and for combating antiscientific attacks in our field, particularly in the arena of climate change. Nobody could be more deserving of the AGU Ambassador Award.
—Michael Mann, Pennsylvania State University, University Park
Thirty years ago, Lady Bertha Jeffreys advised me not to become a historian of science. I was making a grave mistake in throwing my scientific career away, she told me, particularly in light of my hard-earned first-class honors degree from Imperial College.
At the time, there were precious few women in geophysics. If asked to name one, most people could only mention Inge Lehmann. It had required extraordinary dedication and grace for Lehmann to earn her place; the same was true for Lady Jeffreys, and no doubt she wanted to keep me “in the fold.” Had I been quicker, I would have explained that I was not leaving science; I was simply going to contribute in another way. I would have explained that my goal was to understand science as an enterprise: to study how scientists gather evidence about the natural world and come to conclusions about it. Above all, I wanted to answer the question, Given what we know about the fallibility of all human enterprises, what is the basis for our trust in science?
Today we live in a world where many people do not trust science, which puts our enterprise at risk. As Michael Mann and Ben Santer know, it is not easy to do your scientific work while you are under subpoena or being harassed. It is not a joke when a congressman threatens to hold you in contempt, or put you in jail.
As individuals, the continuance of our work depends upon our capacity to persuade others of its value; as a community, it depends upon our capacity to maintain public trust and resist those who seek to undermine it. The success of science as an enterprise rests on our capacity to persuade others that our work has integrity because we have integrity.
I am extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to stand up for the integrity of science and am grateful to be called an ambassador of the Earth science community. I would like to thank all the scientists with whom I have worked, in particular, Michael Mann and Benjamin Santer, who nominated me for this award; my teachers at Imperial College, particularly Rick Sibson, who taught me how to be a keen observer; my professors and fellow students at Stanford, who encouraged my hybrid career path; and my diverse colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Harvard University. I am particularly indebted to the late Charles Drake, and the -still–vital Charles Kennel, who supported me at crucial junctures. But above all, I am grateful to the climate scientists whose work I have had the honor to communicate, represent, and stand up for.